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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gun control and other distractions

Now that we have avoided the immediate impact of the fiscal cliff, our political class has taken refuge in heated debates regarding gun control. I wish I could say there was some degree of wisdom and reflection associated with these discussions. No such luck.

I am no gun enthusiast. I have not fired a weapon in probably over 30 years. I can honestly say I do not harbor strong feelings regarding this debate. I do believe that the second amendment was originally written to protect the rights of individuals to bear arms. Note that the term gun is not included in the second amendment.
A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Few would argue that this amendment should guarantee an individual right to arm oneself with Sarin gas or thermonuclear weapons. It is a given that the Second Amendment to the Constitution is not a carte blanche for individuals to acquire tools of mass destruction. However, the debate is not couched in these terms. One has to draw a line somewhere. Where do you draw such a line and which criteria can should we use to determine where it might be?

For all the bluster regarding gun control legislation, it is essentially impossible to determine what the specific likely accomplishable goals of legislation might be.
It is implied that implementation of additional restrictions of some sort will result in fewer gun related deaths and injuries. This is predicated on two basic assumptions. The first assumption is that such regulations are enforceable in any meaningful way. The second assumption is that even if the laws are enacted and enforced, they will have a meaningful effect. Ironically, places like Washington DC with some of the most restrictive gun control laws have the highest gun related homicide rates .Granted it is difficult to impossible to prevent diffusion of weapons from neighboring localities but this issue is not likely to go away.

The recent series of mass murders has also highlighted a facilitation role for violent media, particularly first person shooter video games. I find the discussions very odd, saddled with huge blind spots. There is no question that it is only the very rare individual who plays these games who then acts out by recapitulating their actions in real life. It is perhaps analogous to the rare complication of drug treatment where one is million of individuals given a particular has a catastrophic and idiosyncratic event. If this happens frequently we do take the drug off the market but if it happens only rarely and the agent provides value, we tolerate the rare undesirable outcome.

What I find odd what we define as acceptable to pay out in a virtual video world. I have not actually played any of these games so my knowledge of what specific characteristics these games have may be flawed. From what I can discern, we deem it commercially acceptable to create video games where players can live out a crime, even the crime of murder and even the crime of mass murder to boot. I understand that no one is really dying and it is just a game.

Let's take this one step farther and ask whether in the virtual and victim-less world we would find other scenarios acceptable:

1. Virtual pedophilia
2. Virtual ethnic cleaning
3. Virtual mass murder of children
4. Virtual animal cruelty

I am presently reading Jonathan Haidt's book on "The Righteous Mind" which touches upon some of these issues. He makes the point that we define certain private behaviors as unacceptable even if there appears to be no immediately victim. What I find so odd about the first person shooter videos is not that we have not legally banned them. It is the fact that they have received so little social push back. They allow people to live out gruesome and horrible fantasies, doing deeds in a virtual world which are so reprehensible that anyone who actually pulls this off in the real world initiates national outrage.

Whether playing such games facilitate mass murders will be debated forever. The sample size required to "prove" such a causal linkage is beyond what we can collect, or at least I hope that this is the case. Thankfully these events are rare events. That said, it does appear that the profile of these young shooters tends to include heavy use of first person shooter video games. That may mean nothing since the use of these games is fairly widespread among young men. However, I cannot imagine such virtual renditions of reprehensible actions would be accepted if it touched upon violence against women, rape, child sex acts, or killing infants. Remember, what is acceptable in the video game world vs not acceptable is not defined by what is legal in the real world. Many of the actions done in these video games are crimes and crimes of the worst sort.

Which brings me back to earth. The discussion is useful but the likelihood that anything useful results in the legal realm is almost zero. Humans have a tendency to violence and this tendency needs to be tempered by social and legal controls. The political class will jump all over this because they want to create the impression they are doing something. Legislation will pass and it will accomplish nothing. This is not a problem which has its roots in legal failure. Making more things criminal is not likely to solve the underlying problems.

Fundamentally, the gun control debate pulls attention from pressuring the political class from having to actually deal with more important and pressing matters where their actions can actually make a real difference. I suspect that the distractions will continue while Rome burns.

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